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Michelle Bettles' parents: 'Dig deeper into our girl's murder'

PUBLISHED: 17:23 09 April 2019 | UPDATED: 10:10 10 April 2019

Michelle pictured age 18. Photo: Norfolk Police handout

Michelle pictured age 18. Photo: Norfolk Police handout

The parents of Michelle Bettles today reveal their dismay with the police investigation into the unsolved murder of their daughter.

John Bettles at the grave of his daughter Michelle in Earlham Cemetery. Picture: Neil DidsburyJohn Bettles at the grave of his daughter Michelle in Earlham Cemetery. Picture: Neil Didsbury

Speaking on the 17th anniversary of her death, mum Denise and dad John hit out at what they view as gaps in the operation at the time and called for the cases of three prostitutes killed in Norwich, including their daughter, to be re-examined.

A dog walker found the 22-year-old’s body on Sunday, March 31 2002 near Scarning off the A47. She had been strangled to death. She was last seen by a fellow prostitute three days earlier on City Road in Norwich.

Michelle was the third prostitute killed in Norwich whose case remains unsolved after Natalie Pearman in 1992 and Kellie Pratt in 2000.

Police believe Michelle was killed somewhere else before being dumped in the woods at Scarning, but they have never established where or when.

“As the case went along I started to get doubts,” John said. “The number one nail in the coffin was forensic evidence.

“There was a fine powder found on Michelle and they (police) insisted that this was going to be a major breakthrough because it was such fine quality.

“It was sent off to forensics somewhere in Cambridge. We waited I think three months.

“Suddenly one day I said ‘what happened to the white powder?’

John Bettles visiting the site in 2004 where his daughter's body was found. Photo: ArchantJohn Bettles visiting the site in 2004 where his daughter's body was found. Photo: Archant

“There was rather a long pause and they (the two officers) looked at each other and one of them said to me, ‘it’s bird muck’.”

Police had a tough job on their hands. People who could offer clues, including clients of the mother-of-three, were reluctant to come forward, but they did make two arrests.

A drug dealer called John Benson, who lived in Rouen Road, was arrested after telling people Michelle owed him for drugs. He was released without charge and died in 2005.

A second arrest, which followed a year after Michelle’s death, was far more promising.

Police took hundreds of DNA samples from men, and one of them finally gave a match in April 2003.

For hours the son of a retired police officer denied ever being with Michelle, but he eventually admitted he had picked her up on the evening of Tuesday, March 26, 2002.

He said it was the only time he had ever been with a prostitute. He told police a taxi driver picked Michelle up from his home and he never saw her again.

Police traced the taxi driver, who confirmed the man’s story.

Michelle Bettles pictured aged 15. Photo: Norfolk Police/HandoutMichelle Bettles pictured aged 15. Photo: Norfolk Police/Handout

The night Michelle disappeared on Thursday, March 28, the suspect told police he stayed at home with a migraine.

But mobile phone records showed he had made a large number of calls that evening.

However police could not pinpoint where those calls came from, and he was also released without charge.

“Even with him there were some massive mistakes,” John said. “He used three mobile phones that night and I said to police, ‘have you tracked the phones?’ They seemed very naive about how to do it.”

Her mother Denise described her as a happy child. Photo: Norfolk Police/HandoutHer mother Denise described her as a happy child. Photo: Norfolk Police/Handout

John said he had concerns about the length of time it took to track the phones.

He also has a theory, although no evidence, that the case is linked to Steve Wright.

Known as the Suffolk strangler, Wright was jailed in 2008 for life for killing five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006. Mr Bettles believes Norfolk police have been too quick to dismiss links to Wright.

He said: “If it takes three months to find out white powder is bird muck, how can they dismiss the link so quickly?”

Police talking to passersby on Dereham Road, Norwich, after Michelle's body was found. Photo: ArchantPolice talking to passersby on Dereham Road, Norwich, after Michelle's body was found. Photo: Archant

In the first link, Michelle mentioned to her mum Denise that she had got into a car with a man dressed as a woman.

Prostitutes working in the red light district later confirmed that Wright, who was living in Suffolk at the time, used prostitutes in Norwich and cross-dressed.

Michelle was also strangled, with her body dumped near water in similar circumstances to the prostitutes in Ipswich.

Denise said: “I was devastated (when the Ipswich girls started being killed). To read it in the papers, it was like bringing it all back. It was like Michelle all over again.

Police scouring the edge of woods near Dereham after the discovery of body of Michelle Bettles' body in 2002. Photo: Archant LibraryPolice scouring the edge of woods near Dereham after the discovery of body of Michelle Bettles' body in 2002. Photo: Archant Library

“She was strangled, she was left in the middle of woods; there were all too many familiar things.

“I phoned the police and they said ‘have you got any new information for me?’ That was the last thing I ever heard.”

As Wright was about to be charged for the Ipswich prostitute murders, a journalist rang John claiming he was about to be charged with Michelle’s murder too.

“I sat on the road for I don’t know how long,” John recalled. But it was just hearsay.

One of the last sightings of Michelle. She was pictured up on CCTV on St Benedicts Street in Norwich city centre. Photo: Norfolk PoliceOne of the last sightings of Michelle. She was pictured up on CCTV on St Benedicts Street in Norwich city centre. Photo: Norfolk Police

He added: “It’s not necessarily got to be (Wright), but I think there is a high possibility. When all these murders were going on we didn’t only think of us and Michelle but other parents who have got to go though what we did. It is heart-wrenching, it really is.

“We live with it every day. You see a girl with long hair who walks a little bit like Michelle, and for that split second in your brain you think, ‘is it?’”

“There is never a day goes by where you don’t think about it. At first it hurts and everybody says to you, ‘you’ll be all right, it’ll go away’, but it doesn’t.

“It gets deeper and deeper and that is when you start getting angry at things which could’ve been done but have not been done.

“I think all the unsolved murders of all the girls need to be brought back to the surface and looked at from a more modern-day angle, and it needs to be dug deeper.”

A Norfolk Constabulary spokeswoman said: “The Norfolk and Suffolk Joint Major Investigation Team have carried out extensive enquiries into Steve Wright’s activities prior to the offences for which he was imprisoned.

“He has been a consideration in several unsolved case reviews across both counties and we remain open to any credible new information provided in this regard.

“However, it would be inappropriate to make comment on his or any other individuals’ status as a suspect or otherwise, given these are all cases which remain unsolved and which are subject to review and potential re-investigation.

“The case into Michelle’s disappearance and murder remains an open enquiry and we would always welcome any new information which could help solve it. Any new information would be reviewed and acted upon if found to be credible.

“As with all cold cases, we would update Michelle’s family if and when we have any significant news.”

•You can listen to the full interview with John and Denise on our Unfinished podcast. Search for Unfinished on your usual podcast provider.

•Follow the latest from our investigations unit on Facebook

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